The Prodigy's parents are in Section 109, Row 14, right behind home plate. Dusk is dropping on Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla., as Jake and Teresa Mauer listen for the evening's starting lineups. How many times, they are asked, have they done this, sat and waited to watch one of their sons—all three of whom are in camp with the Twins—play a baseball game? They turn to each other and share a look, weary but proud. "That's all we do, all summer," Teresa says. � "All spring, too," Jake adds. � Teresa smiles and says, "Basically our whole lives." � Tonight their oldest son, 25-year-old Jake III, an infielder, is on the Twins' bench. He is here just to get a taste of big league life; two weeks from now, he will be back in minor league camp. Billy, 23, a Class A righthander, sits with his parents in the stands. Batting eighth and catching, the public-address announcer bellows, is their youngest, 20-year-old Joe.
Tonight the attention of the Mauer family—Grandpa Jake, a bartender who was the boys' day-care provider while their parents worked, is here too—centers on Joe. He has been microscoped since his sophomore year at Cretin-Derham Hall, a private Catholic high school in St. Paul, when two dozen scouts began watching him take batting practice every afternoon. "The first day of spring training this year, there were seven TV camera crews covering my every move," Joe says. "Pretty nuts." Whenever Mauer arrives at or leaves the spring training complex, the same handful of men, claiming to be fellow Minnesotans, descend on his late-model SUV for autographs. When it is suggested to Mauer that he rent another vehicle to make a quicker getaway, he replies, "I can't. Not old enough."
Now the scrutiny and hounding will go nationwide. Without a major league at bat on his statistical ledger, Mauer, the first pick in the 2001 draft, will start at catcher for the defending two-time American League Central champion Twins; his family has set aside about 1,000 Opening Day tickets for friends, relatives and acquaintances. In a budget-conscious organization that has long depended on drafting and developing talent to stock its roster, Mauer's burden is to replace the traded A.J. Pierzynski, a 2002 All-Star who hit .312 last season and will earn $3.5 million this year in San Francisco. To succeed, Mauer must learn the nuances of the Minnesota staff and the tendencies of every American League hitter, adjust from Double A to big league pitching and withstand the nonstop glare that will halo him throughout the season.
By all accounts Mauer is ready. Scout-centric Baseball America and statistically inclined Baseball Prospectus named him the game's top prospect this spring. He appeals to proponents of performance analysis because he displays offensive consistency and patience: He has never batted lower than .302 or had an OBP worse than .393 in four minor league stops, has 129 walks against 101 strikeouts over that span and last year threw out 36 of 69 runners trying to steal. Scouts love his quick hands, smooth, compact lefthanded stroke and defensive footwork. He also has the all-around athleticism that sets their mouths watering. (Mauer was even offered a scholarship to play quarterback at Florida State.)
Equally important, he handles a staff with an aplomb that belies his inexperience. "It's pretty impressive," says Twins reliever Joe Nathan, "that a 20-year-old can already feel so comfortable at this level. Usually it takes all camp for a catcher to learn what his pitchers like to do, how they set guys up. He's fast." Mauer likes to catch side sessions for starters throwing in-between outings, and when he's in the lineup he sits beside his pitcher in the dugout between innings. When he's behind the plate Mauer processes everything going on around him: Over which shoulder does the umpire like to set up? What pitches are working best for my pitcher tonight? Is the batter jumping at fastballs? Where are my fielders positioned? "That's what I love about catching," he says. "You're the guy in charge."
The bat speed and hand-eye coordination that make Mauer's swing so potent evolved from his father's inventiveness. When Joe was eight, Jake jerry-rigged a batting aid in the garage of the family's three-bedroom house in St. Paul. What would come to be called the Quickswing was a V-shaped elbow of PVC pipe on a stand—both open ends facing the batter. A ball fed into one end of the pipe drops out the other end a few seconds later and is (with any luck) smacked with a bat. In short, it's a version of the hitter's soft-toss drill that can be performed alone. "He'd bring it to the gym three or four times a week," says Jim O'Neill, Mauer's baseball coach at Cretin-Derham Hall, "and the other kids couldn't come close using baseballs and bats. Meanwhile, Joe was hitting golf balls with a piece of pipe." Now the Mauers hope the Quickswing can become their main business venture; a spiffed-up version, endorsed by Hall of Famer Paul Molitor and plugged on cable commercials in the Twin Cities and in several states, sells for $79.95 (www.mauersquickswing.com), and the family hopes to sell as many as 30,000 units by Christmas.
Though the Quickswing helped make Joe a superior hitter for average, he has not yet shown power; in 1,177 minor league plate appearances he has nine home runs, a ratio more benchwarmer than Johnny Bench. "I'm never worried about power," says Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan. "Joe's got a nice swing, he can hit balls a long way, but I'm more interested in his ability to help us win, score runs, catch a pitching staff, shut down the running game and stay healthy. I think the power numbers will start to show up." Says another American League G.M., "Power's the last thing to come."
Talent evaluators and teammates uniformly praise Mauer's maturity, but he retains a youth's passions and idols, like Michael Jackson. "A big fan," says righthander J.D. Durbin, one of Mauer's roommates last season at Double A New Britain ( Conn.). "He knows all the moves." It's jarring to envision Mauer—who comports himself publicly with seriousness and sobriety, a stolid Minnesotan—freaking in his apartment to the HIStory double album. At the same time, it is refreshing because it is a reminder that Mauer's skills obscure his youth, that he still, as Durbin puts it, "dorks around."
The Mauers were, pre-signing bonus at least, a middle-class family, Minnesotans four generations back on Teresa's side, three on Jake's. Teresa still works full-time at Saint Patrick's Guild, a religious-goods supplier. Jake was an engraver, and is now a salesman working three days a week, for a trophy and award company. "They worked a lot of hours, they sent us to private school," says Jake III. "I can remember my dad working overtime around Christmas to make ends meet, and he always coached our teams." Joe used part of his $5.15 million bonus to pay off his family's debts.
Like most every other highly touted rookie, Mauer will be heckled mercilessly this season. He has heard it all before and is usually oblivious to such distractions, but Teresa remembers a game five years ago when the abuse was particularly venomous. "I remember he came out to pitch, and his demeanor warming up was mad" Teresa says. "I had never seen him that angry. He struck out nine in a row and hit a home run."